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Anti-Apartheid Family Vows to Fight On Despite Destruction of Home, Business

Times Staff Writer

The family home is gone, destroyed in a devastating explosion. The family business is closed, nearly bankrupted by a prolonged consumer boycott here. And now three of the four Watson brothers, whites who have crusaded against apartheid for more than a decade, are in jail, accused of burning down their home for the insurance.

Yet their commitment to fight apartheid is undiminished, the Watsons say, and they believe there is growing support, among whites now as well as blacks, for “a new, just, democratic and non-racial system.”

“The net is getting tighter and tighter around us,” Gavin Watson, 38, the only brother not in jail, said the other day. “For years, we have lived with the government’s harassment. The government has tried dozens of times and in dozens of ways to get us out of the struggle (against apartheid), but it has always failed because we won’t give up. Now they have brought these trumped-up charges to discredit us and everything we stand for.”

Three of the brothers--Ron, 36, Valence, 34, and Dan, 32--were arrested last month on charges of arson and fraud. They are accused of blowing up the family home--a 14-room mansion where all but Dan, better known as Cheeky, lived with their parents and their own families--in order to get $220,000 in insurance money that would have saved their clothing stores from bankruptcy.

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Gavin Watson says he does not know why he has not been charged, although he was questioned by police.

The explosion--late on a Saturday night last October, when the Watsons were all away for the weekend--virtually demolished the two-story house. The second floor was blown away, as were many of the thick stone outer walls and the double-brick inner walls. The heavy oak front door was thrown 100 yards. The blast rocked the upper-class neighborhood and was heard six miles away.

At first, the police said it had been caused by gasoline, but explosives experts later concluded that two large charges of plastic explosives had been placed in the kitchen and another downstairs.

Two men, both black, who worked as clerks at the Watson clothing stores and were checking on the unoccupied house were severely burned in the explosion. Both men, close friends of the brothers, were detained under the state of emergency declared June 12, and both are said to have made statements to the police that they set fire to the house at the Watsons’ direction.

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So prominent are the Watsons in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement that the three brothers’ trial is likely to draw international attention.

“The charges may be arson and fraud, but the government will try to make the case seem like treason,” Gavin Watson said. “There is no question that the government’s motives are political, just as there should be no question that Ronnie, Valence and Cheeky are innocent, absolutely innocent.”

Magistrate T. K. Morganthal, denying the three brothers bail at the end of a five-day hearing, said he accepted as “very likely” the state’s contention that the defendants might seek political asylum in Zimbabwe or Lesotho and might attempt to interfere with state witnesses. Morganthal also said that he found Ronnie Watson to be a “lying” witness during the bail hearing.

Prosecutor Henning Van Der Walt, who specializes in security cases, told the magistrate that he is planning to call 167 witnesses, a number unusual even in major political trials here. No trial date has been set.

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“This is, first and foremost, an attempt to discredit us and to portray us as frauds,” Gavin Watson said. “It is also an effort to divert our energy from the struggle for a new South Africa.

“Much more is at stake, however, than just the Watson family. Whites will be able to see what lengths this government will go to in its attempts to silence its critics and to destroy those who continue to struggle. Some people who oppose apartheid will be frightened by what is happening to us--these charges are meant as a warning to others--but more will be convinced, I believe, of the need to end apartheid and replace it with a just, democratic, non-racial political and economic system.”

Watson argued that to blow up the house for insurance makes little sense because most of the money would go to creditors holding liens on the property, and what was left would barely cover the cost of replacing the lost furniture, clothing and other personal possessions. Also, the insurance company had the option of rebuilding the house if it chose, he said, and that might well have been cheaper in Port Elizabeth’s depressed economy.

Although the prosecution has revealed only parts of the government’s arson case against the Watsons, legal observers here believe that it rests primarily on statements to the police by the two clerks, Archie Mkele and Jeffrey Nocanda. But both statements will probably be challenged on grounds that they may have been made under duress.

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Refused Treatment

On the night of the explosion, the two men were taken to a provincial hospital by a passing motorist but were refused treatment because they were black. They were then taken to Port Elizabeth police headquarters and interrogated without medical care for three hours before being taken eventually to a black hospital for treatment, the men said in separate interviews earlier this year. Both had second- and third-degree burns over nearly half their bodies and were hospitalized for more than two months.

“I shudder when I think what they must have done to Archie and Jeff to get those statements,” Gavin said.

Mkele was arrested in July and is being held as a state witness in a local police station but has been denied access to a lawyer. Nocanda’s whereabouts are not known, although he was detained more than three months ago.

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Police spokesmen here and in Pretoria declined to comment on the case against the Watsons, noting that South African law prohibits public discussion of any matter before a court. But the regional police commissioner reportedly has told local businessmen informally that the case against the Watsons “cannot be beaten.”

Gavin acknowledged that “the harassment, the pressure, the rumors, the lies, the telephoned threats to our wives and children, having to close the stores . . . are all taking their toll on us.”

The Watson shops, which specialized in clothes imported from the United States, were exempted when black activists organized consumer boycotts last year in Port Elizabeth, nearby Uitenhage and East London.

“The (black) community considered us comrades in their struggle,” Gavin explained. But as dozens of other white-owned stores went bankrupt each week, the exemption brought even more threats from whites than before and increased attention from the police, he said. When their house was blown up in October, he and his brothers said they believed that angry whites were responsible.

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The two clerks said they had encountered several masked men running from the house just before the explosion.

“When the boycotts resumed in May, we decided not to accept an exemption again,” Gavin explained. “First of all, we wanted to demonstrate that we were not in this for the money, that our concerns were really for the future of the country. Secondly, there was the question of our families’ safety. Exemption from the first boycott aroused such antagonism in the white community that we did not want to risk it again.

“I do ask myself how much longer we can go on, whether we should, whether it is worth it,” Watson continued. “So far, however, the answer has been yes, we must continue. As a Christian, I must hold to my beliefs that all men are brothers, and I am convinced that what we are doing is right.”

Sought Political Dialogue

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With their strong ties to the black community, which go back to their original challenge as rugby players to segregated sports, the Watsons have become a bridge between blacks and whites in Port Elizabeth over the past year.

After the consumer boycott last year and the one that began in May, they have been deeply involved in several organizations here trying to bring whites into a political dialogue with blacks.

“The time has come when whites have to look and see where they can position themselves in a post-apartheid democratic political structure that, because it is democratic, will be largely black,” Watson said. “This is always a shock to whites, but many more whites have come to see that we are right and not crazy and not Communists.”

After having to close their clothing stores, they planned to open a series of non-racial, or integrated, gyms and turn them into community centers, largely supported by business donations.

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“The mood today among the kids in the (black) townships is that they won’t go back to school until liberation, however long that may take,” Watson said. “We fear they could become a real lost generation . . . .”

But these activities, the Watsons say, have brought even more police attention than they have had in the past.

The brothers, who report that over the years they had come to live with tapped telephones, threats to their families, intimidation of their customers and suppliers and physical attacks on themselves, said that security police and National Intelligence Service officials warned them earlier this year to end their activities.

But Gavin says that he and his brothers will not back down.

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“South Africa is our land, and we believe that we have a role to play in bringing whites and blacks together,” he said. “We gave up our business to stand up for the rights of oppressed people, and if necessary we will make further sacrifices for what we believe in.”


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